What A Reformer District Attorney Might Look Like In Boston — From Those Living It In Chicago And Philly

Download Audio
Independent Mike Maloney and Democrat Rachael Rollins will face off in the Suffolk County district attorney's office race in November. (Courtesy)
Independent Mike Maloney and Democrat Rachael Rollins will face off in the Suffolk County district attorney's office race in November. (Courtesy)

Boston’s Suffolk County is poised to become the latest community to elect a self-described reformer to the top prosecutor job.

Rachael Rollins won the Democratic nomination for the seat last week; she'll face off against independent Mike Maloney in November. No Republican is running.

The next DA will follow in the footsteps of progressive reformers elected in Chicago and Philadelphia — candidates who promised big changes in how justice is done — and now have to do it.

During the campaign for Philadelphia district attorney last year, criminal justice reform advocates pushed hard to elect one of the most progressive DAs ever. Larry Krasner promised a swath of progressive changes, and reform groups like Reclaim Philadelphia and the Coalition for a Just District Attorney knocked on 60,000 doors to get him elected.

And they won. Krasner, a civil rights lawyer and frequent adversary of prosecutors and police, is the top prosecutor in Philly now.

Over the last year, Krasner has started enacting the reforms he promised. He’s issued a memo directing prosecutors to factor in the cost of incarceration during sentencing, and ending cash bail for most nonviolent crimes.

The groups that endorsed him have had to switch from supporting the candidate, to holding the office accountable. It’s something that hasn’t been done before in Philly, or in most other places, says Rick Krajewski, an organizer in Philadelphia.

“The idea of community organizations working with the district attorney's office would have been laughable five years ago, or not even imaginable," he said. "There's no road map to figure out how to do this model of accountability and co-governance."

In a few months, Boston will be in the same boat. Rollins has promised reforms from ending the practice of cash bail to not prosecuting many petty crimes. Maloney, a defense attorney, has proposed re-sentencing those serving time for nonviolent offenses.

David Rudovsky is a longtime defense and civil rights attorney in Philadelphia. He was a supporter of Krasner, and is watching Boston and other cities closely as more communities pick a different kind of DA.

"For many, many, many years, prosecutors have been very strong, law and order [types], very harsh, many very repressive, and using tactics and procedures which have led to mass incarceration in this country and have not provided us much more safety," he said. "So what I'm hopeful for is this new breed can show that there’s a different way of doing it and that they can do it successfully.”

It’s a similar story in Chicago, where Kim Foxx unseated the incumbent in Chicago’s Cook County in 2016, riding a wave of rage over how the city’s establishment handled police shootings and corruption.

Like in Philadelphia, the same groups that helped Foxx get elected are now turning their critical eye on her.

After a massive data release by Foxx’s office, a progressive coalition did their own analysis of the data. They commended Foxx for the increased transparency, but said she needs to do better when it comes to charging so many low-level drug offenders with felonies.

“Just helping a candidate win an election is not enough," said Kristi Sanford, a spokesperson for The People’s Lobby, one of the groups involved. "We really do need to have a concrete strategy for how to continue to be in relationship with that person once they become an elected official, and the real-life improvements that we need for our communities and in people’s lives.”

Both top prosecutors in Chicago and Philly have felt pushback — from the attorneys and staffers in their own shops, to the police officers and the unions that represent them.

Rudovsky, the Philadelphia defense attorney, says that hasn’t slowed Krasner down.

“Philadelphia has a long history of a very law and order DA’s office going back decades," he said. "And this is a dramatic change. So it’s not very surprising people don’t like what he’s doing."

Boston’s next DA — whether it’s Rollins or Maloney —  will start having to deal with that scrutiny when they’re sworn in in January.

This segment aired on September 10, 2018.


Ally Jarmanning Senior Reporter
Ally is a senior reporter focused on criminal justice and police accountability.



More from WBUR

Listen Live